Tag Archive | "Charlotte Stafford"

A No-Toys Education

by Charlotte Stafford

Inside a cozy classroom in Brooklyn, 18 children ranging from 2 to 4 years old are seated on individual mats listening to a Thanksgiving song. As they clap and sing along, they jabber away to each other in German.

The room is quite bare. There are simple wooden building blocks in one corner and a mattress with pillows in the other. This space inside the Brooklyn German KinderHaus, a German language immersion school, bears no resemblance to the typical American kindergarten classrooms, which often feature a mélange of primary colors, plastic cars, felt animals, and bright A B C lettering.

Here things are different. There are no toys.

The KinderHaus in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is the first all-German kindergarten in New York. It is pioneering an experiment into the toy-free classroom. This unique and some might say radical idea has been used in German kindergartens for years, however it is not well known to the American system. In fact there is almost no English literature written about it. The KinderHaus, which teaches exclusively in German, has decided to bring the model to New York.

Professor Celia Genishi, a Professor of Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, is an expert in early childhood education and childhood bilingualism. She believes a toy free classroom to be a “unique idea” and was unaware of it being initiated in American kindergartens. “There must be good ideas why the teachers initiated the idea,” she said. “It seems like a strange and interesting idea that would need committed teacher support in order to succeed.”

Katja Ikeler, the primary teacher for the “ladybug group,” is the only educator at KinderHaus currently running a no-toy classroom. Ikeler pushed to try out this radical experiment in an attempt to curb possessiveness among the children and to encourage more interactive behavior. She did not remove the toys right away, but said that it was a process of easing the children in. Ikeler simply sent the toys on “vacation.”

“The children spent about a week choosing the toys, listening to a story about someone going on vacation, then packed the toys into boxes,” she said. “Then they turned the boxes into trains and planes and buses and we told them that they will not be coming for back for the whole of the November month.”

Ikeler’s class has been together for a year and the children are very close. She felt they were the perfect class to try out the no-toy experiment. She was the driving force behind the idea, for the first time, implemented it in November this year, with the support of the faculty. She says she is unaware of any other Kindergarten in New York that has attempted this. While some people may find the idea extreme, Ikeler sees it as important development for the children.

“The theory behind it, is that it is actually preventing addiction at a very early age,” she said. “You know, later on you sometimes see the same reaction in children who have to give up an object that they are emotionally attached to. So to prevent the emotional attachment to an object, we remove it.”

Most of the parents are becoming supportive. Nicola Brower, whose German-born 2-year-old son Max is in Ikeler’s class, has been pleasantly surprised by a toy-free classroom. “I think it is a great idea,” she said. “I love it. It is good for them to do a little more imaginary play.”

It is hard to remove children from their treasured possessions, their comfort blankets, trucks, dolls, but for Ikeler, the gamble of a no toy classroom has paid off.

Ikeler said she is seeing positive results.

“They have started moving around a lot more now,” she said. “So a little doll bed, an empty doll bed had never been touched before when they had all the toys. But now it has been used for imaginary games. They communicate a lot more and they play hospital.

Having no toys in the classroom may be an educational step for the children of KinderHaus but it is also a social step. Ikeler believes making friends is the first and hardest stepping stone for children.

“It’s a very important step to take, it’s difficult to bond,” she says. “They have just discovered that they are a person. It’s just 6 months ago that they had recognized themselves in the mirror!”

Alisia Eichwald, who teaches the “frog group” at KinderHaus, sees it as an important way to enhance the children’s creativity.

“They can use little rocks, sticks and cartons,” she said. “It is important to see what they can do without all these plastic things around them.”

Eichwald, who grew up in Germany, has strong feelings against the typical American kindergarten classrooms. For Eichwald, American kindergartens are all about bright colors. She feels that there is no room left for children’s imagination with the ‘ready-made’ items inside and outside the classroom.

In the KinderHaus backyard, everything is natural. There are no jungle gyms, sand pits, or monkey bars. The children don’t seem to mind though. They star jump into piles of orange fall leaves, collect wood chips and dig in the soil for worms.

Ikeler echoes Alisia Eichwald’s sentiment, adding that she found it extremely difficult finding information on American toy-free classrooms. Her attempts to research them online online were constantly thwarted by advertisements.

“When I Googled ‘toy free classroom,’ all that came up were ads for toys,” she said.

“So these are the toys that someone wants to sell, you know, nobody wants an empty classroom.”

Teachers at KinderHaus do not see toy free classrooms being adopted in American kindergartens, mainly because the concept is still so unfamiliar. Given the right environment, Simona D’Souza, the Director of KinderHaus said, teachers would take the natural kindergarten experience a step further.

“For some of the teachers, if they could do the kindergarten like they do in Germany, having all the children in the forest, they would,” she said.

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Plaza in Jackson Heights Causing Controversy One Year On

A year after the city pedestrianized parts of 37th Road in Jackson Heights, local South Asian businesses are split over the move. Some say the plaza has spelt financial disaster, while others rave about the new business opportunities it has created.

The city’s Department of Transportation installed the plaza last September, following an 18-month transportation study for Jackson Heights. With the approval of Community Board 3, it created the pedestrianized block on 37th Road between 73rd and 74th Streets.

Bangladeshi businessman Anwar Rahman, who works at the Queens of Sheba Candy Store along 37th Road, protested the creation of the pedestrian-friendly space last year.

His opinion hasn’t softened with time.

“Business has gone down by 60 percent since the plaza,” said Rahman. “It’s been very bad. People are just sitting down. They are not buying anything.”

Rahman is not the only one to see his business plummet. Bhatia Attinderjit, the Indian owner of Jessi Emporium, proudly showed off his brilliant array of saris. One mention of the plaza, however, and Attinderjit’s smile fades.

“Everyone knew it was going to be bad for business,” he said. “I’ve seen my revenue decrease by 30 to 40 percent now. It is gradually getting worse.”

Some businesses, however, have not seen a net loss. Suresh Ghandi, owner of an Indian travel agency along the plaza, said that his revenue remained steady after the block was transformed.

For some businesses, one of the main complaints is that the plaza has become a haven for the homeless. For Ghandi this has proved to be its biggest draw.

“The best thing is that the homeless people used to sleep right outside my shop,” he said. “Now they sleep across the road outside of the other stores or use the plaza chairs!”

Other businesses are not so amused. Bangladeshi-born Abjall Miah, who works for the Jackson Heights Music Center, said the gathering homeless has made his life miserable.

“All the bums sit in the chairs,” said Miah. “Every week we have to call the cops three or four times to deal with the homeless and the drunks.”

The plaza has long generated controversy. When it was first proposed, some local businesses questioned whether the location was the right one.

“In the beginning we wanted it to be moved to the next block because we thought that would be better for those coming by car, especially for people coming from outside the area who find the roads confusing,” said Mohammad Pier, president of the Jackson Heights Bangladeshi Business Association. “But now most of our members are happy with the plaza. We need it to make the area a nice one.”

The issue of parking and whether pedestrianizing this block has eased problems is still unresolved in the minds of some shoppers and business owners. According to shopper Muhammad Malik, people regularly used to double-park, causing a nuisance.

Miah, however, disputes this. He said it was a thriving shopping area and now there are no parking spaces for customers.

“People will drive around for an hour and 30 minutes trying to find a spot,” he said. “It has got worse in nine months.”

Attinderjit added that families no longer visit the area anymore. “All it is now is a place where people hang out,” he said. “They don’t shop. It’s just full of people with beers in hand.”

People may not seem to be using the tables outside to have a break from shopping or eat from the South Asian cafes but inside the Jackson Heights Food Court, in the plaza on 37 road, business appears to be booming.

Razi Ahmed, the manager of the Jackson Heights Food Court, held the grand opening of the restaurant two weeks ago. Originally a skeptic of the plaza, he has since changed his mind.

“People were confused about the plaza,” said Ahmed. “It was a mess. Most businesses were against it. We spoke to all the politicians. We protested against it but eventually decided that it would be better to go along with it.”

Ahmed said that 37 local South Asian businessmen changed their stance on the plaza in August this year and formed a group supporting it called SUKHI, or “Social Uplift Knowledge and Hopes Initiative.” He thinks that it has been good for the community and hopes to have a patio outside his restaurant with his own table and chairs. He said that without the plaza, this would not be possible.

Ahmed has reason to be happy. The restaurant is full and there is a relaxed atmosphere.

On a recent afternoon, the take-out business was also brisk, with many people leaving with large brown paper bags filled high.

According to local business representatives Ahmed and Pier, the plaza will undergo further improvements to make it a more attractive outdoor space. Pier concedes that concerns over the increase in homeless people may be valid but said his organization has taken steps to address this.

“We spoke to the police and they have said that, wherever there’s a problem, businesses should call them and they will come and take care of it,” he said. “But anywhere there’s a park area you will get homeless people. They have every right to sit there!”

City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who had supported the plaza from the outset, joined forces with SUKHI and the Jackson Heights Bangladeshi Business Association in August, as they signaled their determination to make the plaza work.

Dromm, who represents Jackson Heights, acknowledged the need for cooperation.

“If these stores were empty, that would be the worst thing in the world that could happen to this area,” he said. “So we want to support the businesses. We want to work together with the residents and we want to try to make people as happy as they can possibly be.”

But, as Pier conceded, this may prove difficult.

“Most businesses now agree we need a plaza,” he said. “But there will always be some people you can’t make happy.”

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Ethnic America Goes to the Polls

Reporters from the New York Torch visited polling places in the New York City and Jersey City area to ask first-time voters from ethnic communities about their experiences, opinions and hopes for America.

Click on the pictures to know their stories.

Reporting by Mea Ashley, Yvonne Bang, Magdalene Castro, William Denselow, Shaukat Hamdani, Colleen McKown, Michael Orr, MaryAlice Parks, Nia Phillips, Griselda Ramirez, Rebecca Sanchez and Charlotte Stafford.
Edited by Jay Devineni, Lorelai Germain, Stephen Jiwanmall, Ntshepeng Motema and Christina Thorne.
Complied by Dhiya Kuriakose.

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Representing a Variety of Cultures, Jackson Heights Votes

Bangladeshis, Mexicans, Indians, and Pakistanis were among the new citizens who voted Tuesday at P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights, Queens. Early in the day the polls were quiet, but as things picked up later on there was evident confusion about the process. Many said they were first-time voters who had just attained U.S. citizenship. Photos by Charlotte Stafford and Colleen McKown

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[VIDEO] Bengali on the Ballot?

Charlotte Stafford, Bangladeshi Beat Reporter~

Produced by Christina Thorne~

Under the Federal Voting Rights Act, more than 5,000 Bengali speakers in Queens should have been able to cast their ballot in Bengali – or Bangla, as some natives call it. But ballot translations were not completed in time. The NYC Board of Elections has not explained just what went wrong. Charlotte Stafford visits Jackson Heights to see if it will effect voter turnout in the Bangladeshi community.

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Being Bangladeshi in the Bronx

With Charlotte Stafford.

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